Is Your Brand Evil?

Is Branding Evil?
Is Branding Evil?

Brandwashed by Martin Lindstrom
In Martin Lindstrom’s excellent Brandwashed, the underlying theme is that brands and other advertising imagery can exert an unhealthy influence on consumers, usually without conscious awareness. Brands infect us, he suggests, from shortly after conception until death.

Though Lindstrom’s arguments are persuasive, I think there’s a counterbalancing effect that’s just as important: brands ADD value to products.

Why Generics Failed

generic scotch
Generic Liquor (via Huffington Post)
The term “generic” is commonly used for some consumer products today, most often in referring to store brands or minimally known manufacturer brands. A few decades ago, though, the term achieved instant popularity as stores introduced ultra-plain black-on-white packages of truly unbranded products. These were promoted as products as good in quality as the major brands, but far cheaper due to the lack of advertising expense. After a brief flirtation with no-brand white boxes, consumers largely rejected them. Why? One reason might be the minimalist packaging itself – the only emotional value conveyed is “cheap.” No pictures of fruit-laden, milk-drenched flakes adorn the generic cereal box; there’s no spoonful of cereal hovering, poised to enter the consumer’s mouth. Just the words, “Corn Flakes,” in block type. Uninspiring and unattractive.

The more important factor, in my opinion, was that most buyers wouldn’t trust a product without a name on the package. Who is standing behind the quality of the product? How do I know this is the same cereal I bought last week, or, if I like it, will buy next week? If nobody wants to put their name on this stuff, what’s wrong with it? Stores vouched for the quality of their generic products, but soon realized that if they were going to add value in that way they might as well build their own brand. To the consumer, any brand – even one they never heard of – is better than no brand at all.

The Joy of Brand

There’s little doubt that brands affect us emotionally. Soda in a Coke can tastes better than when it’s in a Pepsi can, regardless of which cola the consumer is tasting. Wine thought to be more expensive tastes better than the same wine at a lower price. People are more creative when they are exposed to the Apple logo. More expensive drugs relieve pain better.

And, on the flip side, research from Taiwan shows that generic products reduce our self-esteem. Even brand lookalikes aren’t good enough; one study showed that people who thought they were wearing fake Chloé sunglasses were more dishonest than ones wearing authentic ones. (All were real Chloé.)

Let’s not belabor the point – it’s clear that brands really do work on our brain and change our perception of reality. But, is that a good thing or a bad thing? If a brand makes you feel better, have you been manipulated (or “brandwashed,” to use Lindstrom’s term? Or instead of worrying about that question, should we focus on building even more brands that make people feel better? Got an opinion? Click one choice in the poll below, and feel free to add your thoughts in a comment.

Branding Poll: Good or Evil?

Does strong branding help or hurt the consumer?

View Results

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  1. David Murray says

    Hello Roger

    I’ve been receiving your newsletter for awhile now and love it.

    I voted that brands both help and hurt. The reason being that like most things in life, the issue isn’t quite so black and white. There are shades of grey in between. On one hand I know of students in school who are made fun of if they aren’t wearing the “in” brand of clothing and shoes. On the other hand, branding and everything that goes along with it is a major stimulus for economies around the world. Although these are only two examples, I think they show both positives and negatives.

  2. Nathan says

    I’m with David. I voted for both. Branding is a handgun. It can be a defender. It can be a villain. It can fight for right and it can fight for…well, you know. It’s all up to the intelligence that wields it.

    We as humans – and especially Americans – like to believe in the concept of Free Will. We can “do anything we set our minds to do” and all that. We teach that concept in schools. We write children’s books about it and stare at posters that remind us it’s true. And that means that advertising and branding messages do not affect us. We buy what we want to buy, make our buying decisions based on value alone and read Playboy for the insightful articles.

    Uh huh.

    Fact is, very few – if any – of our decisions are not wholly decided by previous experiences which shape our preferences.

    Roger was spot on, I believe, about the failure of generics. I had a sociology lecturer once attribute the lack of real class struggle in America to the fact that we do not have a dichotomy of “haves” and “have nots”; we have “haves,” have nots” and a large majority of “have something like its.” We don’t all drive Italian luxury cars but most of us can drive domestics in the same style. We don’t all have a Rolex, but the Timex style is similar.

    When we see advertisements, we see people using products and we vicariously live through the characters in the ad. If we want to be like them, have the life they have, all we have to do is buy the product they are using. Easy.

    When a brand positions itself in the public view it is essentially saying “Come buy this and you will have the life of the people you see.” And the scary thing is, it really does work. If a message is creatively done and repeated enough, it does indeed take hold. And that, I think, is something that is scary for us to admit.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Hmmm, I guess any marketing, advertising, or sales technique could be used for good or evil. Maybe the poll wasn’t structured right. What I was getting at is for a non-deceptive, legitimate brand, say, Coca Cola or Apple, should we fear the power they exercise or enjoy it. While my logical brain says that something is wrong if I like Pepsi better when I think it’s Coke, maybe I should just enjoy Coke and not worry about it. If Apple triggers the religion spot in the brains of enthusiasts, is that bad? Or if they get extra enjoyment from using their iPhone, so much the better?


  3. Nathan says

    Good question, Roger. And as any other philosophy grad would answer: I say it depends. If we can trust the intent of the advertiser, then, no, it is not a bad thing. The marketer’s/advertiser’s equivalent of the Hippocratic oath says we will use all tools at our disposal to influence a buying decision in our product’s favor. Does that mean influencing an otherwise ambivalent attitude a consumer might have between two choices? Or does it mean CHANGING that preference from one to the other? If I hit the religion spot in Coke fans and convert them to Pepsi, am I bringing them into the light? Or merely brainwashing them?

  4. David Murray says

    Good points all around. Roger, I loved your article on the religious aspects of Apple. It got lots of interesting feedback. If I remember correctly, the feedback from Apple users was mostly negative. It sounded a lot like how people react when their religious beliefs are challenged. I’d say we shouldn’t worry about it and if anything, take advantage of it ourselves in our own marketing. If you think about it, marketers are simply taking advantage of how our brains work. Nothing wrong with that.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Well, that’s the crux of the question, David – some (not me) would say that taking advantage of the way our brains work is wrong. The truth is that marketers have been doing that for centuries, if not millenia. It’s just now we have a better understanding of WHY things work, even though past generations had already learned they DO work via experience and experiment.


  5. Robin Jennings says

    On the generic branding issue. A major supermarket in Australia, Woolworths had a reasonably successful brand with Homebrand, white & red generic dirt cheap tissues, soda water, toilet paper- 1000 different lines.

    A few years ago they converted the Homebrand to a Woolworths Brand, made the boxes colourful, fun, and interestingly increased the prices to only 5% cheaper than the main stream brands.

    Needless to say the re-branding was a complete success and it has almost exclusively been the driver of their phenomenal profit increases these last few years. I believe even the CEO made mention of it in one of his shareholder meetings.

    In fact so successful was it, you could use it as a blog topic in its own right.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Love the Woolworths example, Robin, underscores my point perfectly!


  6. Rochelle says

    Great post Roger. Love your posts.

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